Christopher Monroe is assistant director of the Cornell Institute of Archaeology and Material Studies and a specialist in maritime archaeology. He comments on the possible discovery of the wreck of the Santa Maria off the coast of Haiti.
“All underwater archaeology is logistically challenging. Preservation is usually poor for Caribbean wrecks because of iron joinery that corrodes quickly, marine boring organisms that disintegrate the wood, and an active wreck-hunting industry that hasn't always been careful in its methods. Shallow water sites like this have destructive surf action that will have damaged whatever was left on the reef after the ship was wrecked and then salvaged to build the La Navidad settlement. Thus if anything at all of this ship has been found, it’s a remarkable discovery that should attract considerable scholarly and public interest.
“As to whether this is the Santa Maria or not, based on what has been reported, there's not much to go on except that the wreckage is in the right spot according to the historical record. The wooden remains on site won’t be preserved well enough to give accurate hull dimensions, so the investigators look to what is preserved.
“Ordnance has been crucial for dating and identifying other Caribbean wrecks, though anchors have also been key to the search for the Santa Maria. Work on ships of exploration done by the Institute of Nautical Archaeology in the 1980s shows that ships of exploration carried a variety of medium-to-small guns to effectively resist pirates or other hostile encounters. So, if Clifford's expedition can recover more clues about the anchors, guns or even ammunition, then a solid identification might be made. But even if these prove to be the Santa Maria’s remains, the public should probably lower its expectations about what if anything new will be learned about Columbian exploration.
“Of course the only way to be sure of anything is to properly excavate and preserve the wreck assemblage. However much is recovered, Clifford’s findings could become the only tangible remains of an extremely significant historical event. Especially for the students in my course on ‘Ancient Ships and Seafaring’, I will be following this project with great anticipation.”